James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss’ Was a Killer Experience for the Cast


The Big Picture

  • James Cameron’s film The Abyss was a grueling and demanding shoot, with actors and crew members undergoing diving training and facing dangerous situations.
  • The cast and crew of The Abyss faced high tensions and risky stunts, including Ed Harris being dragged underwater in a helmet full of water and Cameron nearly drowning during a production mishap.
  • Despite the difficulties during filming, The Abyss set the groundwork for Cameron’s career, with stunning effects and a dedicated cast.

There may not be a more successful director working than the great James Cameron, who has made the majority of the nine films in his filmography a massive hit at the box office. Three of his films are still in the top five grossing films and his sci-fi epic, Avatar, still sits comfortably at number 1 over a decade after its release. The other two are the long-awaited sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, and the epic-disaster romance Titanic. But these films were not his first time working with water, and certainly not the first time that he pushed his actors far while shooting a film. The Abyss, his thrilling 1989 film about a civilian diving team searching for a lost nuclear submarine and encountering aquatic aliens, was not his best received film. While it did not bomb, it was certainly a disappointment considering his other box office draws. And it is especially disappointing considering many actors (and even crew!) almost died while filming this movie.

The Abyss

A civilian diving team is enlisted to search for a lost nuclear submarine and faces danger while encountering an alien aquatic species.

Release Date
August 9, 1989

James Cameron

Ed Harris , Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio , Michael Biehn , Leo Burmester , Todd Graff , John Bedford Lloyd


140 minutes

James Cameron

20th Century Fox

A place on Earth more awesome than anywhere in space.

Filming ‘The Abyss’ Came with High Tensions

The root of the problem in the production of this film was that it was extremely hard shoot the cast and crew underwent to make this movie a reality. With Cameron’s high expectations, it was not an easy task to accomplish. The film, as mentioned above, is about a civilian diving team looking for a lost nuclear submarine. With the subject matter, a staggering 40% of the film’s photography took place underwater. In addition to the cast and crew having to undergo diving training in the Cayman Islands before production even began on the film. They also had to turn to an abandoned nuclear power plant in South Carolina for a tank to film in, as they quickly realized that Cameron needed a controlled aquatic environment, so the original plan to film in the Bahama’s was out. Malta had the largest tank available, but it was still too small.


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And that was just the beginning. On top of all the mishaps that happened to the cast and crew (sometimes even to Cameron himself), the shoot was grueling, and pushed a lot of the cast to their breaking point during filming. 70 hour weeks for six months will take its toll. Ed Harris admitted to sobbing on his drive home from the shoot, and actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a breakdown on set. The chlorine from the tank was burning the skin of the divers. They even had to switch to night shoots after a lightning strike tore a hole in the black tarp above the tank. In a climatic slapping scene with Harris and Mastrantonio where her character had drowned, he realized that the camera had been out of film and he was not told. Mastrantonio, rightfully upset, stormed out. In Harris’ words, “[they] were guinea pigs.”

The Set of ‘The Abyss’ Was Dangerous

The high tension on set was not just a product of a tough, long shoot, but also of some dangerous situations the cast and crew faced while filming The Abyss. Notably, one of the most egregious stunts involved Harris in the liquid breathing suit. The liquid breathing suit is exactly what it sounds like — it’s a suit that allows you to dive without having to compress while doing so. While it may sound more science-fiction than fact, it actually exists, but it hadn’t been through human trials yet. The rat undergoing liquid breathing in the film was actually real, and a huge point of controversy for the film, leading to its upcoming 4K Blu-ray release being canceled in the UK. Thanks to some movie magic, Ed Harris’ character believably undergoes this, but Harris was in fact just in a helmet full of water being dragged along, holding his breath for the takes. Which made it a horrendous filming experience.

Cameron himself even nearly drowned during the film’s production as well. While at the bottom of the enormous set, he realized that the AD, who was supposed to be monitoring Cameron’s oxygen levels, had gone off the clock. In an effort to get to the surface quickly, he stripped all of his diving gear–even his helmet–and tried to surface as fast as possible. A safety diver tried to assist him, but the breathing regulator was broken and instead of air, Cameron unfortunately sucked in water. He had to resort to punching the safety diver to get free from his grip, as he thought Cameron was in distress. Thankfully, both of them got to safety, and the possibility of the worst tragedy on set was avoided.

This Wasn’t Cameron’s Last Time Pushing Actors to Their Limits

While a large part of the horrors of The Abyss’s shoot were never repeated in Cameron’s following films, he was still known for pushing his actors far while filming. In fact, they would not be the last to almost drown during the film-making process, because Kate Winslet almost did the same during the filming of the blockbuster hit Titanic. Titanic was another rough shoot, perhaps not as terrible as The Abyss, but Winslet caught hypothermia, chipped a bone in her elbow, and yes, almost drowned.

During the scene when they are running away from rushing water, only to be stopped by a gate, Winslet’s coat got snagged on the metal. While fighting the rushing waters, she had to work herself out of the heavy coat to free herself. “I had no breath left. I thought I’d burst,” she says. And when Cameron did not acknowledge what had just happened and wanted to roll again, she “didn’t want to be a wimp so [she] didn’t complain.” Considering her tumultuous time on Titanic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind involving water, when she was added to the cast of Avatar: The Way of Water, it is understandable that she underwent a lot more training for the underwater sequences of that film. In fact, Winslet hit a record-breaking seven minutes by holding her breath underwater for that film, beating out Tom Cruise’s previous six-minute record while filming Mission: Impossible– Rogue Nation.

‘The Abyss’ Is Cameron’s Most Underrated Film

Despite all the hardships the cast and crew faced while filming this movie, The Abyss only achieved a soft box office profit premiering at less than 10 million, domestically. This especially pales in comparison to the other films throughout Cameron’s career such as True Lies and Titanic. The Abyss may have seemed to have faded into the past, but it still has its fandom. It’s certainly worth a look for anyone who hasn’t seen it. The effects are stunning and it was impactful enough that it set the groundwork for his career. Like his other films, it is epic and looks beautiful, and the cast put in a lot of hours of hard work into this one. The Abyss has seen so much success that it was recently re-released in theaters and restored in amazing 4K.

The Abyss is currently available to buy on Amazon Prime Video.

Rent ‘The Abyss’


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